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Designer's Notebook: Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?

November 28, 1997
 

When Henry Morton Stanley finally found David Livingstone after trekking halfway across a continent, the only thing he could think of to say was, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

Livingstone was the first European he'd seen in months -- the only other one in central Africa. Who the heck did he think it was? But that was the Victorian era, when people were not supposed to speak to one another until properly introduced by a third party. In the absence of someone to help out, Stanley had to break protocol and introduce himself.

The Victorian era is over, but the problem still remains, so I'm going to take this first column to introduce myself. I'm a full-time game developer, and I work for Electronic Arts. [Required disclaimer: To avoid any conflict of interest, I won't be discussing EA products in this column. The opinions in here are based on my years of experience as a game developer, and doesn't necessarily represent the views of Electronic Arts. Now we have that out of the way.] I've been developing games professionally for about eight years, first as a software engineer and then as a strange hybrid of designer and video producer. I used to help put on the Computer Game Developers' Conference, and I founded and chaired the Computer Game Developers' Association for two and a half years. I have a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Stanford University, a 14-mile commute, and no car radio.

When the witty and handsome Jennifer Pahlka at Gamasutra asked me to write a monthly column for her, I was flattered but dubious. "I can't reveal the trade secrets of my job," I said. "Besides, my work doesn't change enough to justify talking about it every month. On the other hand, I do have a degree in philosophy, a 14-mile commute, and no car radio, so I have about an hour alone every day to think about game design and development and the industry and love and sex and money and life and death. Will that do?"

"Sure," she said. "And if we don't like it, we'll just cut you off," she added cheerfully.

So that's what this column is going to be: my personal ruminations about this enterprise we're all engaged in. The philosophical foundations of the industry, if you will. You may ask yourself how an industry that turns out so much appalling drivel can have philosophical foundations, but they're there... you just have to dig a bit. I happen to think that interactive entertainment is exciting and important -- much more important than the mainstream media give it credit for. Let me explain why.

I played my first computer game at a science museum in 1970. They charged $2 an hour, which for me was two whole weeks' allowance. It was the best investment I ever made. I paid my $2 and went down to a little room in the basement of the museum. It was completely bare: fluorescent lighting, concrete walls, no windows. Just me and an ASR-33 Teletype.

I'm going to digress for a moment to wax rhapsodic about the Teletype. It's almost a shame that a new generation of computer users is growing up never having used one. The Teletype was the standard of electronic written communication, predating E-mail. It printed in upper-case letters on yellow roll paper at 110 baud, and there was a certain breathless excitement about reading the text as it appeared. In newsrooms around the country, Teletypes connected to the Associated Press clattered out the latest stories the instant they were filed. The "hot line" between the White House and the Kremlin had an ASR-33 at each end. The machine hummed quietly to itself when it sat idle, but you knew that at any moment, it might suddenly start up and print out the nuclear launch codes. When running, it rattled and vibrated and smelled like machine oil and ozone.

I sat down at this thing, typed in XEQ-$LUNAR, and I pressed the return key.

Half an hour later, I had landed on the moon.

And I had fought the Klingons in a massive space battle, with phasers and photon torpedoes and shields.

And I'd built a dragster, and I'd raced it, and I'd redesigned it and I'd raced it again. And I'd governed ancient Sumeria. I'd watched my population thrive in good years and die in bad years, and I'd known the despair of losing my harvest to the rats. I'd done that in half an hour! Sitting there with my noisy, smelly machine, in a windowless room with concrete walls and fluorescent lighting.

In a blinding moment of revelation, the power and the potential of the interactive medium shone out. Listen: computer games can take you away to a wonderful place and there let you do an amazing thing. Books, TV, and movies can't do that. They can take you away to a wonderful place, but they can't let you do an amazing thing. That's the power of interactivity. That's what makes this medium unique, and that's what makes it important. Because that power overcomes obstacles like upper-case letters on yellow roll paper. That's why I'm doing this.

The first chance I got, I taught myself programming (FORTRAN, on the University of Kentucky's IBM 360). The first program I wrote added 3 and 4 and printed out the result. The second program I wrote was a computer game. I've been building and playing them ever since.

My current working life is a bundle of contradictions. I work for a large game publisher, and my sympathies lie with small developers. I work on one of the best-selling games of all time, and I'm especially interested in offbeat, experimental, even unsalable forms of interactive entertainment. My job is to script, produce, and edit audio and video for my game, but I don't believe in having a lot of video in computer games. The product I work on is purchased almost exclusively by young men, and I would really like to see this industry produce more games of interest to women and whole families.

In short, I'm either hopelessly schizophrenic or a Renaissance Man. Go figure. But I like my job and the product I work on and the company I work for and most of the people I work with, so I don't mind.

Maybe I'm being unrealistic about the power of the medium. Maybe you have to be a ten-year-old to best appreciate it. Maybe I am still a ten-year-old. But I believe that that capacity for wonder and excitement is still there in all of us, and I can think of no better job than helping to bring it alive.


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